Artistically Speaking

Riding BMX bikes around Albuquerque as a kid, Michael Ulibarri (ULI-ONE) saw plenty of street art. The skate parks and the network of storm drains that made getting around the city easy were full of graffiti. “There are miles of street art down there,” says ULI. “And there were a lot of people at the skate park who were in the hip hop culture — graffiti artists, lyricists, DJs, people like that.”

But ULI didn’t get involved in street art himself until he was 21. Like many young people, he went through a difficult period, struggling to find direction. Working at home in mixed media on canvas, he didn’t feel validated. “I wanted to get my voice out there. Yes, it wasn’t exactly in the most appropriate or legal method, but it let me know that I existed. I needed to express myself creatively.”

Michael Ulibarri painting a mural for Form Salon in Orem.

ULI became immersed in the underground graffiti culture, its hierarchy and rules. Only once did he have to run from the police, but several times he had to run from other graffiti crews, who often posed a bigger threat than the law. ULI developed his own style and name using the first three letters of his last name. Graffiti culture fosters plenty of anonymous individuals — even people with respectable jobs as business owners or graphic designers who become their alter egos at night and run with a graffiti crew. All have their own personal tag.

While many people see graffiti writers as nothing more than vandals, ULI says, “You’ve got to realize that these people have a very special brand of self-motivation. They’re willing to risk their freedom and their lives on rooftops and ledges doing what they believe in. Painting is like a mini military mission. You need to know three different escape routes. You need to do homework on your spot. Are there cameras? Where are the lights? Do people walk around the area at night? There were certain spots I wanted, and I’d sit on the street like a homeless person for three or four hours to scope out that spot. There was a lot of planning to meet my goal.”

By day ULI was planning for a different future. He had been accepted by the University of Arizona but, shocked by the high cost of tuition, began looking for more affordable higher education in the four-corners region. While visiting relatives in Utah — both his parents graduated from Brigham Young University — ULI took a guided tour of Utah Valley University. “I got a really good feeling on the tour,” he says. “I wasn’t as much listening to what they were saying as noticing how the students were interacting with each other, what the vibe was.” He was impressed by the Hall of Flags, not having realized how international the University was, and by how easy it was to talk to a representative in the environmental science program about academic requirements and job prospects. He was sold.

Moving to Utah required adjusting to a new culture, and ULI still yearned to do street art. “It’s an addictive lifestyle, but I had to switch my motivation. I wanted to do it artistically and give back to the community.” He started at the Provo farmer’s market, painting on temporary canvases of industrial-size plastic wrap stretched between trees. “Seeing that I could break down the stereotypes that existed around street art by doing it out in the open instead of doing it like a ninja at three in the morning was powerful,” he says.

2017 Cultural Cans Crew in front of mural at Sweets in Provo

ULI also created Cultural Cans at UVU, a club devoted to street art. As its president, he helps other students hone their street-art skills. The club has three main purposes: 1) to break down the stereotypes and stigmas that surround street art and artists through education and engagement, 2) to foster a network of artists in the community, and 3) to stop vandalism through mentoring. Under ULI’s direction, the Cultural Cans crew paints commissioned murals, including one that can be seen in the pedestrian tunnel beneath Campus Drive celebrating UVU’s 75th anniversary.

ULI’s hope for the crew is that they can create a stronger link between UVU and the city of Orem, in much the same way BYU is linked with Provo. “We’ve been here for 75 years. Let’s start making a footprint. I have school pride, because the school has treated me amazingly,” he says.

mural created by Cultural Cans at UVU

ULI is also working to strengthen the bonds between the city and the University as a member of UVU’s Political Action Team. He attends Orem City Council meetings whenever possible. “I’m working on expanding my understanding of how the political system works,” he says. “Many people my age don’t want to get involved in politics, but they should. Most people think that the national level is all that really matters, but I’ve had my eyes opened to the fact that it’s the other way around. If you really want to make a difference, you need to know who your mayor is, who’s on your city council, who your local senator is, who is on your state legislature.” He would like to see forums at UVU with the Orem and Provo city councils to inspire more students to become politically aware and involved.

Now a senior in environmental science and management, ULI has more plans for the future. In part because of the lack of clean water on Native American reservations, ULI is focusing his studies on water resource management. Of Native American descent himself, he wants to use his environmental science degree and his street art to uplift people living on reservations. He would also like to paint murals with uplifting messages to counteract the many billboards promoting consumerism.

“In some reservations, it’s a really sad state of affairs,” he says. “There’s no clean drinking water. On some there’s no electricity. Cirrhosis of the liver is a common problem. Just go to the reservation for a week and try to live out there. My family’s lives are absolutely blessed 100 percent. I want to go back and give of what I know and be a mentor to youths. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for government assistance for Native Americans, and I want to show the next generation that they can get off the reservation. But don’t forget where you came from. Go back and help out.”

For now, ULI is working as a freelance street artist. He recently created a mural for Omnipresence on Geneva Road in Orem, the largest he’s ever painted at around 1700 square feet. In the past few months, he has also done Sweet’s Island Grill in Provo, My Fast PC in Provo, a Spud’s food truck, and a mural for a Salt Lake City restaurant. He says, “When I first started picking up a spray can, I never really imagined this is where it would take me, but I wouldn’t change anything.”

This year ULI was selected to be a UVU Foundation ambassador. Ambassadors are chosen from among UVU’s most promising students to represent the University at prominent events and to welcome important guests to campus. Each ambassador receives a scholarship in the name of a past UVU Foundation Board chair.